Ukrainians demand ransom from Mariupol

KHARKIV, Ukraine –

Ukrainian forces fought village by village on Saturday to contain a Russian advance through the east of the country, while the United Nations worked to broker the evacuation of civilians from the last defensive stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the port city of Mariupol.

An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and as many as 1,000 are living under a sprawling Soviet-era steel mill, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine did not say how many fighters are also at the factory, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but Russia put the number at around 2,000.

Russian state media reported on Saturday that 25 civilians were evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks, although there is no confirmation from Russian UN news agency RIA Novosti that 19 adults and six children were evacuated, but gave no further details.

A senior official with the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the plant, said 20 civilians were evacuated during a ceasefire, although it was unclear whether he was referring to the same group as Russian news.

“It’s women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the wounded: “We don’t know why they are not taken and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not being discussed.”

Video and footage from inside the factory, shared with the Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters who refuse to surrender there, showed unidentified men with stained bandages; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.

A skeletal medical team was treating at least 600 wounded, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard. Some of the wounds were festering with gangrene, they said.

In the video, the men said they only eat once a day and share only 1.5 liters (50 ounces) of water a day between four people, and that supplies inside the beleaguered facility are depleted.

A shirtless man appeared to be in pain as he described his injuries: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that “was dangling from the flesh”.

“I want to say to everyone who sees this: if you don’t stop it here, in Ukraine, go further, in Europe,” he said.

The AP was unable to independently verify the date and location of the video, which the women said was taken within the last week in the labyrinth of corridors and bunkers beneath the plant.

The women called for the Ukrainian fighters to also be evacuated along with the civilians, warning that they could be tortured and executed if captured. “Soldiers’ lives also matter,” Yuliia Fedusiuk told AP in Rome.

In his nightly video speech on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy switched to Russian to urge Russian troops not to fight in Ukraine, saying even his generals expect thousands of them to die.

The president accused Moscow of recruiting new soldiers “with little motivation and little combat experience” so that units destroyed early in the war can be thrown back into battle.

“Every Russian soldier can still save his own life,” Zelenskyy said. “It is better for you to survive in Russia than to perish in our land.”

Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine has been difficult because air strikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. In addition, both the Ukrainian and Moscow-backed rebels have introduced strict restrictions on combat zone reporting.

But Western military analysts suggested that the offensive in the Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was proceeding much slower than planned. So far, Russian troops and separatists appeared to have made only small gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military force in the east.

Numerically, Russia’s military strength greatly exceeds that of Ukraine. In the days leading up to the start of the war, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had deployed up to 190,000 troops near the border; Ukraine’s permanent military personnel number around 200,000, spread across the country.

However, in part because of the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance, the US believes the Russians are “at least several days behind where they wanted to be” as they try to encircle Ukrainian troops in the east, a senior US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment of the US military.

With a lot of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s offensive could still intensify and invade the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has around 900,000 active soldiers. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance have flowed into Ukraine since the start of the war, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine’s needs are almost inexhaustible.

Mariupol officials described a dire shortage of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with officials in Moscow and Kiev but could not provide details of the ongoing evacuation effort “because of the complexity and fluidity of the operation”.

“There are, at this time, ongoing high-level commitments with all governments, Russia and Ukraine, to ensure that you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant,” Abreu told AP. He did not confirm the video posted on social media allegedly showing UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.

Ukraine has blamed the failure of several previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian bombing.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

— Ukraine’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotsky said in televised remarks that Russian forces had seized hundreds of thousands of tons of grain in territory under its control. Ukraine is a major grain producer, and the invasion has driven up world prices and raised concerns about shortages.

— A Russian rocket attack destroyed the runway at the airport in Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and a major Black Sea port, the Ukrainian army said.

— The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest near the Kiev suburb of Bucha, said the head of Kiev’s regional police force. The men, whose bodies were found on Friday, were tortured before being shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.

— Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators speak “almost every day.” However, he told Chinese state news agency Xinhua, “progress has not been easy.”

— Two buses sent to evacuate residents of the eastern city of Popasna were targeted and contact with organizers was lost, said Mayor Nikolai Khanatov: “We know that (the buses) arrived in the city and then were attacked by an enemy sabotage group and recognition.”

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Associated Press journalists Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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